Before we get going here, I want to be clear – this discussion is on “inspired” items, not counterfeit bags or any garment that misuses another brand’s name or logo. We would never encourage or condone that!

It’s no secret in these parts that some of our readers get very punchy when they feel as though one designer has taken liberties with the work of another. The subject of originality is one that’s near and dear to almost any fashionista’s heart, likely because we’ve all been conditioned to seek out The Next Big Thing. When a designer bases a garment too closely on what has already been done, it flies directly in the face of the pursuit of the new. Retro is one thing, ripoff is another.

Or is it? Johanna Blakley, a University of Southern California researcher that specializes in media and intellectual property, thinks that perhaps the well-worn practice of fashionable copycatting is actually what continues to drive fashion forward and make designers better and more original. She makes an interesting case in the video above, and we’ll discuss it after the jump.

In case you’re unfamiliar with how trademark protection differs from copyright protection, here’s the basic distinction: trademark protects registered brand identifiers (the Louis Vuitton monogram, for example), while copyright protects intellectual property and creative work (the overall design and shape of the Speedy bag). Just like any other business, fashion designers enjoy trademark protection on their names and logos, but unlike musicians and writers, they don’t have any copyright protection on their work. According to the law, fashion is classified as too utilitarian to receive additional protection.

As Blakley explains in the video, that means that basically any brand can rip off any garment as long as they don’t reproduce the original company’s trademark. Many designers, most vocally Diane Von Furstenberg and the CFDA, think that designers should be given the same consideration as musicians, which could potentially mean that it would be illegal for anyone but Von Furstenberg to manufacture patterned wrap dresses, for example.

The age-old argument in favor of copyright protection is that without ownership, there’s no incentive to innovate. The alternative, I guess, is supposed to be that designers rip each other off into oblivion until no one has any brand identity or sense of creativity anymore. Has that happened in fashion yet? It doesn’t seem so – trends are now moving more quickly than ever and designers are being forced to find new angles and new ideas more rapidly.

Blakley brings up another good point in that regard – could copyright protection and fashion trends as we know them coexist? Probably not, and trends are what push sales for many brands and retailers. They guide shoppers toward what to buy and how to stay current, and if everyone in fashion was forced to make something completely different than everyone else, it might be a little difficult for the average shopper to put together a cohesive outfit, unless all of the components came from the same brand.

Would it even be possible for every designer to simultaneously do something completely different than any other? Again the answer is probably not, and I wouldn’t want to be the government official tasked with deciding which designers get to use which materials, shapes and techniques. Also, there’s the issue of deciding what makes a garment substantially different than any other – does a menswear company need to be forced to prove that its white button-down shirts are substantially different from any other?

Ultimately, copying is a part of the creative process at every level of fashion, and being able to pick the very best from the pastiche of garments past to mold in to something new is part and parcel of being a successful designer. Similarly, the ability to quickly recreate those looks keeps stores like Forever 21 in the black and forces luxury brands to constantly chart new territory and make better, harder to copy clothes and accessories. I went in to Blakley’s lecture dubious, and although I didn’t agree with everything she had to say, she certainly makes a compelling case in favor of a designer’s right to rip things off. As always, let us know your take in the comments.

Note: there seems to be confusion over how to spell Johanna’s last name, but I’m going with the spelling used in her TED bio and USC page instead of the one used in the video still above.

  • Jan

    I have to agree with Joanna. In every niche of the fashion world someone has a “take” so to speak, on someone else’s design. For example Rough Roses inspired take on the” Balenciaga bags. Major retailers are picking up their line for those who cannot afford the real Bal bags. Shoes, dresses, clothing are all being inspired and not infringing on the other company’s trademarks. It’s the way of the fashion world…IMHO.

  • mochababe73

    I don’t know about forcing designers to be more creative, but I appreciate finding similar styles as a lower price point. Being a teacher and not having one single credit card in 14 years forces me to be very discerning about what I buy.
    I would love to have a DVF wrap dress. Can’t afford it. So, I don’t see anything wrong with buying one from, for example, Macy’s INC. It’s what I can afford. If I couldn’t, I would ask my sister, who is a seamstress, to make one for me. I REALLY want a LV speedy, but I can’t afford it either. I found a similar one made by Dooney and like it better!
    What I am trying to say is that for those of us who are not willing to go into debt, having inspired pieces is a nice alternative. Let’s face it, most trends are throw away, and I would hate to spend $$$$$ on something that will be out of style within a couple of months.
    Just my opinion.

  • whit

    i remember watching this vid documentary following mizrahi and how he goes shit, so and so is doing x as well.

    sometimes designers might come together and do similar patterns (because they go and buy it instead of making their own) and sometimes they might have the same material (textile influence) but you can clearly tell when one designer is copying another most of the time. sometimes its hard to prove.

    some companies like H&M and Zara and Mango and so forth, though, they are obviously taking runway trends (inspire, copy, whichever people look at it) and bringing it to the mass market at a super low price but also super low quality. they are useful for people who want to try a trend, play with it, and if they want to invest then they can go towards the designer pieces that will last longer and fits IMO better.

    if somehow the inspired looks better and fits better then the real thing, then obviously those designers need to get off their bum and do some actual work. but thats not the case, 99% of the time, theirs is better and you CAN tell the difference. or the super picky, attention to detail with eyes people can, i know i certainly can.

  • Leah

    I love being able to choose what trend I want to invest in and what I’d rather scrimp on. With my limited budget, I choose to splurge on purses and scrimp on most other fashion since that adds the most impact (and fun!) to my wardrobe. Fashion should be flexible and ever-changing… I pay enough money for my bags that these designers should have to work it!

  • bindc

    This is great. Thanks for posting! I love TED.

  • Rosecity

    Huge TED Talks fan. Thanks for the insightful write-up.

  • ddar

    From a legal perspective, nobody is EVER going to give them protection on designs…it would be way too hard to properly define or get any kind of clear perspective on what is an incredibly subjective topic. Can you imagine the way a designer like DVF would use it to terrorise small designers?

  • EXCEL

    Some great points, ultimatly, DVF is an old hag, who has no talent, who came up with one idea, which you can easily trace back to earlier designers, who’s still riding the wave of it and it would be impossible to police, the man power and designers like Marc Jacobs would not exist after being sued to oblivion, and the designers are stressed now coming up with all the extra collections, being totally creative and original in this day and age where every designer has an archive of YSL, Dior and Poiret books and pieces to “reinterpret” would be impossible for them.

  • Marleen Isabelle

    Thank you for this post – I think it’s a very interesting perspective, never really considered it this way. I myself find most rip off designs offensive, and definitely prefer going for the original. Yet I agree with mochababe73; for seasonal trends I’d rather shop at Zara etc as opposed to spend a fortune on something I wear for a few weeks. And considering the situation as Joanna Berkeley stated it, where with a copyrighted industry there would be no longer trends as we know it, I think is quite a sad thought.

    I think everybody has simply to decide for themselves what they acknowledge as reproducible trends or designer original. We don’t have to buy a ‘rip off’, but we should still be able to appreciate their existence.

  • Jamie

    Awesome video. I loved the Westwood heels–http://harryallen.info/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/viviennewestwood.jpg inspiration for Wang maybe?

  • Gia

    I think she is wearing a Rick Owens jacket but I cant be sure because there is no copyright in fashion.

  • Thumbelina Fashionista

    What a fascinating post–highly enlightening. I think the bottom line is that designers are actually benefitting from this free system, as evidenced by the plethora of collaborations between designers and low-end street stores. Fashion these days is about high and low–and when something becomes too exclusive, the dynamic will shift–and perhaps not to everybody’s benefit.

  • NCGal

    Copyright is really a culturally-based concept. In Amish culture, for example, there is no copyright for anything including songs, books, and other forms of written text; the notion being that G_d owns it and it is therefore arrogant to take credit for something that isn’t really yours. Lovely notion.